From the aftermath of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to George Stephanopoulos’ repeated dismissals of Newt Gingrich on ABC’s “This Week”, yesterday the Sunday talk shows all but declared the election over. Can John McCain still win even so? Yes. Joe the Plumber is part of why.
First the numbers.
It is true that the Real Clear Politics moving average of polls has shown the race closing. But this is because two outliers — one showing as much as ten points separating the candidates — dropped off as more recent polls were added. Perhaps the race was as wide as the 8.2 percent that RCP reported on October 14th. But the daily update from the Rasmussen polling operations (the most accurate pollster in the nation in 2004) has termed the contest “quite stable” with the support for each candidate staying within a two-point band for the past three and a half weeks.
Yes, the financial meltdown has hurt McCain but, at least to date, not enough to say the race has been put away. Rasmussen on Friday flagged three groups – men (who split 50-50), ages 40-64 (also tied) and conservatives (where Obama was doing better among liberals than McCain among conservatives). In all three groups, McCain was underperforming GOP norms. Since then, men and conservatives have moved toward McCain. Rasmussen doesn’t show age breakdowns daily, but chances are they can be moved further with the themes that McCain crystallized in the Wednesday night debate. This is where Joe the Plumber comes in.
Watching Barack Obama on YouTube tell Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher that, if he succeeds in acquiring that two-man plumbing firm and increases his income to $260,000, yes, Obama will make him “spread the wealth”, then hearing Senator Obama deride Mr. Wurzelbacher at a Friday rally, it was hard not to suspect that something more is going on in the Democratic candidate’s economic program than just the cluelessness of an academic liberal out of Chicago’s upscale Hyde Park neighborhood. The senator’s responses to Joe left Obamanomics looking less and less a crusade to save the middle class, as Obama has maintained. Instead his program looks like a payoff for one of America’s most powerful special interest groups – labor unions.
Consider Obama’s union-driven agenda.
There is abrogating NAFTA, hardly in the broad public interest when studies show that jobs and national living standards have increased thanks to NAFTA. But some major unions fear that their contracts cannot stand up to North American, not to mention global, competition. So with a public-be-damned attitude, they want the treaty thrown out, and Senator Obama has gone along.
Then there is card check, to abolish secret ballots in union certification elections. The Supreme Court has established elaborate and just rules to insure workplace democracy. But this body of decisions is statute-based, not Constitution-based, rooted in labor legislation from the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley to Landrum-Griffin. What Congress gives, Congress can take away – and Obama has promise to ask Congress to do just that. Unions have been losing private sector elections for decades. They represented only 7.5 percent of the workforce in 2007. Fearing further losses, the lords of labor have resolved to go back on one of the movement’s most cherished and legitimizing principles – and, again, Senator Obama has gone enthusiastically along.
Finally, there are the taxes Mr. Wurzelbacher asked about and Obama’s union-endorsed health care plan – which, as Joe noted in an interview over the weekend, would impose its own tax on him, should he be able to buy that business. What do taxes on people like Mr. Wurzelbacher have to do with unions?
The first Joe the Plumber hit article came from “The New York Times” last Friday. It noted prominently that Mr. Wurzelbacher is not a member of the local plumbers union. What it did not say is that, in many regions and occupations, men and women like Mr. Wurzelbacher present at least as great a challenge to unions as does NAFTA or the reluctance of big-company workers to back organization campaigns.
A long-time staple of Republican rhetoric is praise of the American spirit of enterprise and of the entrepreneur who embodies it. As a theme, it dates back to the late 1970s, when researchers at MIT discovered that the primary source of net new jobs in the United States was companies with five employees or fewer. Some of these firms became very big. Many grew to twenty or so employees. Some stayed about their size when they began. But while the Fortune 500’s employment shrunk, employment in these companies expanded.
The problem is that, like Joe on one end and Wal-Mart (a small company not so long ago) on the other, these new and unorganized businesses have been taking market share and employment from union-dominated ones. So from labor’s point of view, Joe the Plumber – who is better described as Joe the Aspiring Small Businessman – has become a real threat.
This is the economic secret of the Obama campaign: taxing the rich won’t impact truly wealthy people like Warren Buffet in any meaningful way. But it will put a brake on Joe and hundreds of thousands of other middle-class voters like him. Outside of the billionaires and near billionaires in Mr. Buffet’s league, “the rich” is not a static group. They are men and women in their peak earning years, many of whom have started or are working for smaller businesses. At any moment “the rich”, as Senator Obama describes single people making $200,000/year and married people making $250,000/year, may be only five percent of the population, but over a working life, the category comprises a far larger share of the country. And much of these people’s so-called income is tied up in their companies.
The election’s true economics can be summed up this way: The CEO of Lehman Brothers is reported to support Mr. Obama. While he is not demonstrative, Joe the Plumber gives every sign of supporting John McCain.
And this brings us back to the groups in which Mr. McCain is underperforming and the prospects for this election. That 40-to-64 age cohort is the group heaviest with people who started or work in small businesses and who are in or entering their peak earning years. This is the group on which the election will turn.
Does Senator McCain stand a chance? As things stand today, these are the people who will decide.